Featured Above: A large and very curious Galapagos tortoise inspects my camera while I lean in for a shot.
A family trip to the brilliantly sunny Miami Metro Zoo this past weekend got me thinking of the relative merits of zoos in the wider context of modern society. What exactly do they offer that accounts for the many hoards of people who are drawn to them annually, making them one of the most popular pastimes, often even more so than sports events? Apart from the dubious ethics of animal captivity, a perspective that I sympathize with particularly with regards to animals that lead complex emotional, social, and intellectual lives such as whales and dolphins, I do also believe that zoos offer a number of potential benefits. For one thing, they play an essential role in wildlife conservation through their research and through educating the public about various species and their delicate positions in the biosphere. Additionally, zoos are often places where people, especially children, first come face to face with the extraordinary creatures that they’ve only ever encountered in books, films, and in their dreams. Most notably, however, zoos can in seemingly subtle yet profound ways prompt us modern city dwellers to reflect on how we relate to the natural world, thus helping us to reconnect with our long lost ecological selves.
The term ‘biophilia’, first used by German-born psychoanalyst Erich Fromm to denote a love of all that is alive, was later adopted by the prominent Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson in his ‘biophilia hypothesis’ in order to refer to the innate human tendency to be drawn to and interact with animals and nature due to our extensive coevolutionary history with them. In light of this biologically encoded relationship, the biophilia hypothesis and a growing body of evidence maintain that interactions with nature and animals are associated with a host of emotional, psychological, and physiological benefits such as an increased sense of wellbeing and satisfaction, reduced stress levels, alleviation of mental illness symptoms, and quicker recovery prospects for patients who’ve had surgery or are otherwise recuperating from some previous ailment. Thus, the immense popularity of zoos, the frequent decorating of offices with plants and paintings of natural scenery, and the keeping of pets are all manifestations of our profound need to be surrounded by life and to maintain some form of communion with our coevolutionary past.
On a more solemn note, English novelist and poet John Berger in his enormously compelling work, ‘Why Look at Animals?‘, associates the development of zoos with the spread of modern capitalism from the 19th century onwards, with the colonization and exploitation of new and exotic lands, and the gradual marginalization of the animal with respect to the identity of modern, western society. With industrialization and increased concentrations in urban centers, humans gradually lost most if not all contact with nature and thus with the possibility of encountering animals in their daily lives. Berger thus describes zoos as ‘monuments to the impossibility of such encounters’. We visit them to catch glimpses of our former selves, of the parts of ourselves that we can no longer access. As the ravages of modern capitalism continue largely unabated, animals continue to disappear. Entire species are wiped from the face of the earth with each passing day, many of whom we never knew existed, and others that we had but a faint conception of but now will never have the chance to know more deeply and intimately. In the midst of our planet’s 6th mass extinction, zoos today and the animals that inhabit them serve as living monuments to the mass disappearance of animals from contemporary life and from our biosphere in general. In zoos, animals are marginal beings, mere fragments of their former profusion across vast expanses of our planet before the formidable impact of modern man. Zoos are near constant reminders of what we’ve lost and still stand to lose, and perhaps therein lies their greatest value.
The zoo is a paradox. It is a site of conservation as well as a painful reminder of loss. It is an experience that can educate and inspire affinity through familiarity, while at a deeper psychological level revitalizing our depleted stores of oneness with nature and our living counterparts. In a world increasingly dominated by urban life and technological sophistication, any contact with nature, even in zoos, is essential for our wellbeing and for helping to ignite our innate biophilic tendencies. As a child, visits to the zoo were among my most cherished memories. When I first caught the intense gaze of an enormous male silverback gorilla, I felt electrified, transfixed. From then onwards, amidst other frequent encounters with wildlife in parks and the like, my love for the natural world has continued to intensify. The next time you take a trip to your local zoo or aquarium, take a moment to reflect on all that it represents, the positive as well as the negative, for a zoo is more than just a zoo. It is an augury of where our current paths are leading us, and a window into a stifled self that demands recognition and import. Perhaps in the not too distant future we will learn to reconstruct our ways of life along more sustainable trajectories, in the process restoring the natural environments that we’ve destroyed and reduced to a mere fraction of their former size and vitality, thus devising newly harmonious and equitable man-nature interactions and perhaps even dispensing with the need for zoos altogether.
Content by Heather Alberro.